Kyle Bennett, Comment magazine’s reviews editor, stirred up a fuss among readers last week with an essay scalding makers of a popular board game for designing it to provoke bad temper, hostility, and greed.
Bennett was, many responses went, a mug, a bug, a mope, a dope, a know-nothing know-it-all unable to understand that a game is just a game. Worse, he was guilty of making some readers, in the immortal words of Elmer Fudd, “vewy, vewy angwy” for his misguided missive.
Of course, it was the readers who missed the irony Bennett was using to make exactly the point they accused him of missing, and who manifested the real behaviour he was critiquing: the cultural habit of blaming externalities for our own internal inappropriateness.
In an age where information has become almost exclusively binary—zero or one—irony must be handled vewy, vewy carefuwwy lest you drop it on your own foot. I must admit that my first reading of Bennett’s piece left me thinking he was either wrong in what he was saying, or right because he meant the opposite of what he was saying.
Taking the latter, rather dyslexic, approach on a re-reading convinced me that he was saying what needs to be said. We are a culture that, in the jargon, plays the blame game incessantly, not just when our amusements go awry.
The Janus face of the 21st century sees virtually everything as “my choice, but not my fault.” We are people compulsively obsessed with our freedom to choose everything—and our insistence on not being wholly responsible for anything.
We are far too sophisticated to claim that the Devil made us do it. After all, he’s not the boss of us. But there is the devil to pay when what is chosen turns us into chumps. Fault must be found with whoever or whatever conspired against us to make our choices defective.
The cost of this libertine determinism to our interior lives—to what was long ago called our character—is frightening. It goes beyond exacerbating, in Thomas Cranmer’s exquisite phrase in the Book of Common Prayer, our “manifold sins and wickedness.” It prevents us from seeing the truth that would truly set us free.
Several years ago, for example, a woman I love dearly chose to embark on a weight loss program. The program required, as such programs invariably do, the purchase of paraphernalia. She lugged the gee-gaws home and laid them out on the kitchen table as proof of her commitment. Her son, happening by, asked how much it all cost. She quoted a figure with the tone of one who has just made a very wise investment.
“Why not try self-control?” the son said. “It’s free.”
Now, it might not have been the most tactful, never mind helpful, of remarks. But the dear woman’s reaction was one of grievous wounding. How could anyone say such a thing?
It was a similar, if less hysterical, reaction to the one I got years ago when the so-called obesity rights movement first started making noise. I wrote a column saying many of the obese could help themselves, by simply shutting their cake holes. Again, I admit, perhaps not the most delicate of formulations. But the wrath it provoked invariably ignored the fact of its truth. One woman caller simply screamed disconnected obscenities into my tender ears. I actually put the receiver down, got a cup of coffee (skim milk, please), and returned to my desk to hear her still yowling.
The point here is not to pick on the overweight or the under willed. I use these examples only because our approach to something so basic as eating provides a clear illustration of our insistence on blaming externalities for interior shortcomings.
We will say that cake makes us fat. And we will eat the cake anyway. And we will refuse to acknowledge the truth that the very premise is untrue. Cake does not make us fat. Eating too much cake, refusing the free gift of self-control, makes us fat.
Blaming the cake for what happens when we refuse that free gift makes as much sense as blaming the cutting board on which it sits. Or as Kyle Bennett argued more subtly in his Comment essay, most of the things we get fussed about are accidents of our own design.